Educational Failures – Are Trade Unions Too Blame?

Andile Lungisa’s – Chairperson of the National Youth Development Agency and  ANCYL leader – call for the de-unionisation of teaching has sparked a furore. The arguments focus on the constitutional right for workers to belong to organisation, and that focus must be placed on the real problems facing education. I however argue that the problems in labour relations in the education lies not only with the trade unions, but with government, who have not fulfilled their responsibility as an employer.
Improving education in South Africa is the most important priority in South Africa. When I look at our results on the international benchmark examinations, I am angry with us as a society. We have literally failed a generation of children in South Africa. To put it bluntly, we perform very poorly on the international examinations, with some assessments of the results placing last in the world for performance on the Mathematics examinations. We are facing a crisis in education, and we must act.
Instead of acting to resolve the situation, there is this constant repetition that the trade unions are too blame. Here are a couple of refrains I have heard over the last few weeks:

  • Inspectors are not allowed into classrooms, because trade unions say they cannot observe teaching.
  • Unions provide cover for lazy teacher
  • Unions hold their meetings during school hours
  • Performance based pay will not happen because the unions do not say so.

Teacher unions will defend their track record of on each of these areas. This article does not do that. Instead, it asks a more fundamental question – what is government doing to ensure that it is able to monitor performance of schooling? The article finds an unwillingness of government to be a bigger problem, than trade unions.

Th Absent Teacher

Let us start with a basic example – A teacher is perpetually absent. Why can this happen?
First, there are layers upon layers of management that are in place to ensure that the teacher remains in the school. Below is a graphic, which shows that there are at least seven layers of management and political leadership in our education system. For a teacher to be truant and still get paid, all seven of these management layers must fail.

It is astounding how many layers must fail for a teacher to be perpetual absent. Everyone blames the unions, but surely accountability of all of these structures must be a factor?
Second, there is an employment contract, and there are discipline and incapacity agreements that are in place. The agreements are far from perfect, but they exist and provide a procedure to discipline errant public service workers. Have any of the departments of education undertaken formal legal proceedings against errant teachers? To my knowledge, there has not been a concerted effort in this regard. In other words, the process of disciplining teachers must be tested, before arguments that it is impossible to fire teachers can be substantiated. It begs the question, if there are such high levels of absenteeism, surely an appropriate legal response should have been undertaken?  In other words, government as employer must act where there is evidence of discipline and incapacity. There is nothing exceptional in that, it is what employers are supposed to do.
Third, the argument that the unions are to blame provides political cover for ineffective political and administrative leadership. “I cannot do my work because the trade unions are too strong” is a common refrain for underperformance by many politicians and public sector managers. Is it not too convenient an argument?  When one looks closely at school’s that perform badly, there are often no administrative records. Simple things like attendance register’s for teachers are not kept, according to anecdotal evidence.  This would form the basis of legal arguments against a truant teacher. I find it difficult to understand how a trade union can be blamed when simple administrative records are not ke

Why then blame the unions

There are four  reasons for the argument that teacher unions are to blame for poor performance.

  1.  It provides the political cover for politicians and administrators that are not doing their job. Their incompetence is being covered by a seemingly insurmountable obstacles (and this is the important part) that is outside their control. The result is a lack of accountability in government, and turning routine administrative and legal processes into a complex political problem.
  2. Teacher trade unions are powerful. There power extends not only in the education sector, but across the broader political configurations in our society. Seemingly, the conclusion is that teacher trade unions are too powerful to take on. If one believes that unions are too blame, then here again is the politically convenient argument  reforms and innovations are being blocked. If this is the case, then this is a profound failure of leadership both from government and from the trade unions.My perspective however is different. There are huge spaces to craft agreements with government and trade unions that are meaningful and impactful at a school level. I am not talking about wishy-washy social compact, but rather a series of reforms that could scale.  
  3. The strategy around improving education still lacks clarity. It is clearer today than it has been over the last decade, and the Department of Education has introduced some credible reforms. However, without a long run strategy for education (especially the proximate goals that catalyse wider systemic change*) the blame game continues.Ultimately, the challenge is that if the diagnosis is that teacher trade unions are too blame for poor educational performance, then government should take them on. The stakes are just too high, and we will fail another generation of learners if we do not. However, if the diagnosis is that government is not functioning in the educational field – and blaming unions is a convenient excuse – than the focus must be placed on systems that work, and allow the “government-as-employer” to act, and act decisively.
  4.  There are obviously problems in some branches and regions of teacher trade unions. There have been important responses from national leadership of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) to ensure that the union plays a developmental role. However, much more is needed, to ensure that a worker organisation supports high quality education for working class learners. In other words, teacher unions must take the lead in ensuring that they continue to play a developmental role, or in union parlance are “transformative unions”.

In sum, at play in the arguments that unions are to blame, is that government seems to be hiding its failures. The saddest conclusion is that this means that we run the risk of failing another generation of learners.

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